Tuesday, March 18, 2008

But What Good Is A Dream

After all of the negativity that’s out there in the world, I need to talk about something which is the exact opposite for me. There are some films that you love that you want to share with everyone you ever meet. But there are also films that you want to somehow keep to yourself, to not share with others. Maybe they won’t get it, maybe they won’t understand. Maybe, even worse, they’ll have such an opposite reaction to it that the negative energy of that will drain away a little bit of what makes the film so special for you and that just can’t happen, no way. Jacques Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT is just that sort of film. If you watch enough films with a degree of darkness to them, maybe it takes something so deliriously happy, hopeful, full of life and all the possibilities within to cause you to fully embrace what is within its frames. Over the years I’ve lost interest in a lot of musicals, both vintage and recent, which seem to be about a fake sort of emotion that I can’t relate to. Often to me their images of perfection, like in old MGM films, make them seem remote and stifling. ROCHFORT, a cinematic collision of the French New Wave and the feel of those old Hollywood musicals, feels alive, feels real, however stylized as every frame of it is. The film was a box-office failure in the states when released and even now, through some brief searches around the net, I can still find harshly negative opinions on it. A Gene Kelly biography I once glanced at dismissed it as garbage in a few paragraphs. Maltin gives it two stars. And yet there’s not a single thing you could ever say which would keep me from being absolutely convinced that it’s one of the most beautiful things in the history of, well, anything.

The plot is both simple and as complicated as a kaleidoscope. While THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, Demy’s previous film which was presented in the form of an operetta, took place over a period of years and focuses on one single couple, ROCHEFORT takes place over one long weekend and deals with a large group of people. As a large fair comes to the provincial town of Rochefort, twin sisters Delphine and Solange (real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac), are planning their imminent move to Paris as they yearn for love. Their mother (Danielle Darrieux) owns a café in town which is the hub of much activity. She still thinks of the man she left ten years ago named Simon Dame, because she couldn’t imagine being known as “Madame Dame”. Unbeknownst to her, Dame (Michel Piccoli of DANGER: DIABOLIK and CONTEMPT) has moved back to town to open up a music store where he has unknowingly struck up a friendship with Solange, whose music career he tries to help by contacting his old friend, the famous composer Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Delphine, meanwhile, has broken up with her boyfriend, bitter gallery owner Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), who has been displaying a painting which looks remarkably like her. What she doesn’t know is that it was painted as a vision of “feminine ideal” by sailor Maxence (Jacques Perrin) who though he spends much of his time in her mother’s café, their paths have somehow never crossed…and so it goes. It’s a world of fate, of chance, of people yearning for the hope that their true love is just around the corner, not knowing that they really are and they don’t know to look to see them. And amongst all this, I haven’t even brought up the members of the fair played by George Chakiris and Grover Dale or the ax murder which gets a few musical numbers of its own.

When Deneuve and Dorleac turn around just a few minutes in to sing their “Twins Song” directly to the camera you’re either going to revolt or embrace every single glorious second of what is to come. I know that some people revolt. I’m the guy who does that sometimes. But the films of Demy, including LOLA, BAY OF ANGELS, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and the Los Angeles-set MODEL SHOP possess a world view which I somehow click into instantly. It’s an extension of the PETER PAN intro “All this has happened before and will happen again,” extended to the matters of how every love story is at once unique to the person experiencing it and identical for what people have always gone through. It’s the possibility of relationships, that the next person you pass on the street could be a love from the past or the last great love of your life. This is all brought to its utmost extreme in ROCHEFORT, which is shot entirely in real locations—even many interiors are shot with many windows to the outside visible to continue the feel of the town as character—yet it’s beyond stylized with people everywhere dancing in the streets, mostly outfitted in bright Tutti-Frutti colors, almost filming the actual town of Rochefort as if it were a backlot. This may be one of the only places on the globe which I would want to visit simply because of it’s appearance in a movie (Piz Gloria in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is another which comes to mind). While Michel Legrand’s music for CHERBOURG was done in a more classical style, the approach here is more big-band/jazz, adding a more appropriately upbeat tone for this story. And the choreography that goes with it, sometimes criticized, feels to me just right in its imperfections and ideal to go with this film. It may love Hollywood musicals, but it very much has its own idea of what it wants a musical to be.

Many elements from Demy’s earlier films recur here, such as life in a provincial town, a centralized café, old lovers reappearing in life, a stranger arriving in a white convertible. There’s even a brief mention of a character from LOLA in dialogue, a touch Demy used in a number of films, even to the point of having characters recur, lending the feel of a continuing universe. At one point Michel Piccoli’s character muses aloud that a visiting friend may not recognize him, yet later when the friend arrives it’s Piccoli who doesn’t recognize him right away. That sums up a great deal of what Demy’s films are about—worrying about what is coming, then when it’s right in front of us we never seem to realize it right away. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is about that time when you are 20 and you know exactly what you want and the way the world works. Of course, the film’s characters learn otherwise. THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, on the other hand, is about that time in life when you are a few years older. You’ve learned a few more things, maybe you’ve already been hurt and things seem that much messier. The film is messier as well and it feels totally appropriate. Within that frenzy is the joy which makes up the film and the hope in life for what may still be to come.

The reputation the film has has, at least in the United States, goes back to when it was first released. While CHERBOURG may have been an arthouse hit in 1964, by the time ROCHEFORT rolled around in 1968, it simply wasn’t the right time for such a candy-coated musical. There’s also the sad fate of Deneuve’s sister Françoise Dorleac, who, after filming BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN but before the release of this film, was sadly killed in a car crash in Nice in June of 1967. She was only 25. Additionally, its American release was no doubt hampered by being shown in a dubbed version. All of these misfortunes seem to have combined into making it the wrong film at the wrong time. Fortunately, the dubbed version seems to have vanished off the face of the earth and the current DVD, in French with subtitles, is immaculate and the right way to see it.

It’s a thrill to watch every single cast member, even after multiple viewings. Deneuve is of course luminous, but there is additional bittersweet joy in watching Dorleac, maybe because it’s all too obvious what a tragedy it is we never got to see her in more films. I went through a period a number of years ago when I began to wonder if Michel Piccoli was in every film made in Europe in the sixties. His demeanor, a man resigned to the sadness in life, makes him instantly likable, maybe more than anyone else in the film. Gene Kelly, fittingly, is given the most memorable introduction. Around 55 when this was shot, he’s still spry, if not quite what he used to be, but I suppose this was the last look at ‘classic’ Gene Kelly that ever existed. His first number, shot more like a traditional Hollywood musical than anything else in the film is a thing of wonder. It’s very clearly not him singing, but that’s definitely his voice speaking French and dialogue scenes and it’s obviously the actual production audio. In these scenes he looks eager to please, happy to be there and not a little terrified. Watching the film again I’m very aware that it runs a little over two hours. But at one point as a section began which I didn’t remember favorably, I suddenly found myself enjoying it as much as any other scene in the film. That’s what ROCHEFORT does—it strips away your defenses, your cynicism. While it plays, all is right in the universe.

The notion that it feels like a thematic follow-up to THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and the fact that it presents characters very much in a transitory stage in life has long made it seem like THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT was meant to be the second film in a prospective musical trilogy. Sadly, that third part was never made. But by the time we get to the celebrated final shot of ROCHEFORT it seems to me like the entire film is almost as pure an expression of joy, of hope, of potential, that I can imagine. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have the feelings of love for THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT that I do. But it has stayed with me through the years as I think of its characters, of what it says about all the right things in life. It’s a film I truly love and I make no apologies for that.


Anonymous said...

I'm in the same camp as you for this one! Few films make me as deliriously happy than this. I've only seen three Demy, but this is easily my favourite... I can't even pinpoint what it is about it that's so sincere and so cheerful, it just exists to be.

The pastel landscape combined with the real locations make something truly unique and beautiful. It's a strange kind of expressionism where the characters just happen to be filled with "joie de vivre" instead of some form of misanthropy.

It's a wonderful tribute to the films it's trying to emulate without feeling derivative. Demy has a knack for homage, making everything feel fresh and original, while also appreciating his predecessors. It's a rather refreshing sentiment.

Happy there are more of us! It's so infectiously wonderful.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Lovely post on a special film. I have never understood the negative reactions people have to this picture...it is a gloriously beautiful work that is the equal to Umbrellas (no small feat).
Thanks for the thoughtful post on a film not mentioned enough...I sure do wish Francoise Dorleac hadn't gotten in the car that morning...she was really special

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Glad to see that there are others out there who are fans of this film. It does indeed make me deliriously happy and it is gloriously beautiful. I don't even want to analyze the reasons for it too much--I just like how it works its special magic on me. There's no way to say why more people don't latch on to it, but those who know how special it is can consider themselves very fortunate.

Thanks to you both for writing.